3 February 2021

10 Practical Tips For Finance and Accounting Career Success

by Yash Deshpande

As a young professional, I can convincingly say that Finance chose me and not the other way. In 2014, I received my undergraduate degree in Electronics and I had no inclination towards an engineering career. I was looking for a job where I could use my commercial acumen, communication skills and creativity. When I landed my first job as a Project Controller, I did not consider a long-term finance or accounting career path. I first reached out to a 10th grade school professor who could teach me basic accounting and explain an income statement. So, it’s safe to say that my finance career started by chance but continuing it for 6 years has been one of the best decisions!

Here are some of the highlights of what I cover in this article:

While my career is still in the toddler stage, what I have amassed in great quantities is credible advice from some stellar finance leaders. So, for folks who are starting their finance careers or already working in Finance, let me share some proven tips from finance leaders with flourishing careers.

All the advice below is from my interaction with my Finance mentors and executive leaders who were kind enough to lend me their time and wisdom. Together we will explore the following advice:

  1. Run on the Right Track
  2. Learn What Matters
  3. Analyze and Solve
  4. Learn to Code
  5. Always Think Value-add
  6. Find Your North Stars
  7. Amp up on Soft Skills
  8. Design Thinking & Innovation
  9. Join Communities
  10. Move out of Finance (for just a bit!)

Run on the Right Track of Your Career Path

Career growth is a competitive event, and we all want to win, albeit on our own terms. What would make it impossible to win is if you were running on the wrong track. If your skills are suited for a career in FP&A (Financial Planning & Analysis), then you are bound to find little happiness in a Compliance role! So, the first step to growing in a Finance/Accounting career is to find the industry and a track which works best with your personality and skill set.

So, how do you figure if you are on the right track? According to Australian finance career coach Ankit Hemani, “the first step is to figure out where you are, what are your current strengths and weaknesses. Without self awareness, making a career choice is like flying a plane while blindfolded.”

If you don’t know what you want to do, make sure you know what you don’t wish to do. And work your choices by elimination.

5 tips for a perfect career start

  1. Listen to your feelings. What does your gut say? Could you continue happily in the same role/industry for the next 10 years? If no, head to the next step.
  2. Make a list. Take a paper and pen and list down your hard skills, education background and personality traits. Now, look up online for different roles that are available and see what excites you and where your skills fit best! Investopedia has a good overview of sectors and roles in Finance. Read up online on people’s experiences across different roles.
  3. Do internships. If you are still a student, the best way is to do multiple internships across different finance roles so that you get practical experience before making a choice. And if you are a finance professional, a great way is to get involved in some cross-team projects. Interact more with professionals across a broad range of roles so you get a detailed overview of which role suits you best.
  4. Get a mentor. A mentor of mine gave me wonderful advice when I was searching for a finance role. He said, “Yash, some people paint with light and some with darkness. Both are perfectly fine. If you don’t know what you want to do, make sure you know what you don’t wish to do. And work your choices by elimination.” So, if you think the pace of investment banking is not for you, eliminate that option and then eliminate some more till you arrive at what excites you.
  5. Be realistic. Find the right track and design a realistic path to achieving your desired position.

Learn What Matters

There is an increasing divide among people about the efficacy of a formal degree for career growth. But the fact remains that the majority of employers value educational qualification, and if you are a fresh graduate with no work experience, an educational degree is an absolute must. So, if you want to develop a career in any sphere of Finance, the bare minimum is an undergraduate in the relevant Finance area.

Let’s say you are a mid-career professional who has found passion for finance, a great way to transition is to engage in part-time finance education. A relevant education degree confirms your passion for the field.

If you are already working in finance, the best way to grow your career is to keep learning! Do you work in banking, why not opt for a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) certification? Do you work in Corporate Finance? Opt for a Financial Modelling course.

Educating yourself will keep you updated on the developments in your field as well as give you an edge in terms of career growth. In many companies, finance certifications are a prerequisite for promotion and a criterion considered during year-end appraisals.

Getting additional qualifications

If you want to identify what additional qualification suits you, speak with some people who have done those courses. They will be able to elaborate on the pros and cons of the qualification as well as tell you how the degree/certification has helped them in their career. This Indeed complication of finance certifications could be a good start for some online research.

There are multiple platforms where you can access courses on the go, like Coursera, edX, etc. And the best part about opting for such courses is that a majority of firms, partially or fully, reimburse the cost of these courses!

While you work on earning your qualification, always remember that understanding the outcome of learning is more important than the qualification itself.

Analyze and Solve

Finance has always been a quant-heavy career choice. As data becomes the new oil, the ability to analyze large data sets has become tremendously important for finance professionals. Today, finance professionals deal with: Structured and Unstructured data. Structured data is data which your organization creates and typically comes from internal ERP/reporting software. Unstructured data is everything external such as market trends, consulting reports, social media postings, news etc.

In today’s dynamic environment, Finance professionals are expected to effectively use both structured and unstructured data.

In today’s dynamic environment, Finance professionals are expected to effectively use both structured and unstructured data to understand their business and make accurate forecasts. For example, a Treasury professional is expected to understand how the news of US-China tariffs could impact the company and use it to hedge accurately to gain maximum benefit. When finance professionals work with Sales teams, they are expected to understand the market trends, consumer sentiments and competitor strategies. Data skills are integral across all levels and teams of finance professionals.

Finance professionals have to analyze complex information, incorporate them in financial models and build scenarios for leaders to take the right decision. Overall, there is an increasing need to analyze complex structured and unstructured data and solve critical business problems. Hence, analytical mindset and problem solving skills are critical to growth in Finance. The importance of analytical mindset and problem solving skills only expands as you climb higher up the ladder.

Recommended reading: How CFOs Make the Most of Business Intelligence

Learn to Code

We already spoke about structured and unstructured data and how important it is for finance professionals to use both. One thing that will immediately get you noticed is your ability to use the latest data analytics tools and come up with insights. Finance professionals across all industries are expected to mine their data for actionable insights. And in order to find these insights, professionals need to use the latest analytics & visualization tools such as Python, R, SQL and Power BI. If you look at job descriptions, you will see that most employers expect finance folks to have some sort of exposure to these tools and be well-versed in using them.

Gone are the days when proficiency in MS Excel was sufficient for a career in finance or accounting.

Gone are the days when proficiency in MS Excel was sufficient for a career in finance or accounting. Nowadays, finance professionals need to merge their finance acumen with killer data analytics skills. So, if you haven’t brushed up on the latest trend/tool in data analytics, about time to start.

Sign up for a course online on Coursera or simply log into YouTube and find free videos of what you want to learn! Being skilled in coding will help you speed up data analysis, automate repetitive tasks and come up with insights that most folks will fail to find! Keep honing your data skills and pretty soon you will find yourself coaching fellow team members. Getting known as the Data Wiz within the team will get you noticed by your manager as well as the senior folks. And what’s a more ideal way to boost your career? Doesn’t matter which industry or finance function you work for, data analytics skills are essential to building your finance career.

Always Think Value-add

An exciting change that has happened in Finance is the shift from cost-saving analysis to value-enhancing strategy. A few years ago, Financial Controllers were always on the look-out for ways to reduce costs and in-turn improve profitability. This meant working more on the supply side of the business. But now, with the rise of the SaaS industry and subscription models, Finance has moved to influencing the demand to increase profitability.

An important ability that will push you ahead in finance, is to understand the value that a decision adds. Value based pricing has taken center stage and finance has become more customer centric. The decisions that a finance professional makes should revolve around, “What value does this add to the customer and to the organization?” Finance, instead of cutting costs, is more focussed on increasing revenue.

Hence, if you want to build a successful Finance career, make sure your discussions focus more on the value and not solely on the costs. Embrace a strategic mindset where you think of the long haul and show leaders what value the proposal adds, tangible and intangible. Think of value-add as your ability to help your business partners achieve their goals in the most sustainable manner.

Finance professionals are typically afraid to push solutions which might increase costs, but in order to grow the business the value of the solution needs to be highlighted! Business leaders are more interested in what value the solution will provide and will it help them gain more customers.

How Volve can help you

Investing in the right set of tools is a great way to add value to the firm. Implementing automation tools will help redirect your energy towards the most pressing business tasks. This is also the mission of Volve. It is an amazing expense management tool that is even more relevant in our remote working environment. Volve’s solution automates mundane manual processes which allows people to focus on higher value-adding tasks. If you want to get your finance department started with adding more value to the business, then start with Volve, which can be implemented in a day or two.

Find Your North Stars

As a young professional, your growth is heavily linked to your performance but as a manager, your growth is linked with the growth of people reporting to you and the people you report to. As you move into managerial positions, you will realize that career growth is no longer an individual sport but a team sport.

To be in the top 1%, you need to do what the top 1% do.

Ankit Hemani

An amazing way to gather knowledge for career growth is to find the right set of mentors. People who have been in a similar position as you and rose to the ranks where you want to be. As Ankit Hemani states: “To be in the top 1%, you need to do what the top 1% do. Most of the top performers have a set of mentors. You need mentors within organizations but you also need someone who is available for you, when you need them and where you need them. Someone who can share their expertise and translate it to what it means in your world.” The beauty of having a mentor is having someone tell you what mistakes to avoid, connect you with the right folks and bring you into the spotlight for the right opportunities.

So, if you don’t have mentors today, how do you find them?

How to find mentors within your firm

Look for people who are 2 levels above you in your finance organization. So, if you are in Financial Planning & Analysis, that person could be the Head of FP&A; if you are in banking, it could be the Senior VP of your division. Speak to them that you would like to have 20 minutes of their time on a monthly basis where you can discuss and hear more about their experience. Executive leaders are always keen to share their knowledge with younger employees. So, find these folks in your organization and speak to them about your interest in being mentored.

If you are keen on a career move, say from Accounting to Treasury, look for someone senior in Treasury with whom you can discuss your career interests and understand the pros and cons. Set up a monthly meeting with them which will help you map out an effective transition from Accounting to Treasury.

How to find mentors outside your firm

We live in an age where we can reach out to any professional and have a conversation. If you are not active on LinkedIn, you are missing out big time. So, update your LinkedIn profile and start connecting with finance professionals whose career trajectory you would like to emulate. Send them a message about having a short call or chatting over coffee to understand a bit more about their experience in finance and what it takes to be a successful finance professional.

And don’t be deterred by folks who don’t respond to your messages. Even a 10% success rate is stellar! You only need one or two quality mentors, at a time.

Pro-tip: Look into the future

Finance career mentor Edwin Ang of Singaporean firm Expert Career Mentors, suggests to look into the future. Look up job descriptions for your dream job at the company you most admire that will be relevant to you 5 to 10 years from now. Look at what skills and what industry experience you need and devise a plan to attain this experience over the next two years. For example, if you are in accounting and want to move into Financial Planning & Analysis, ask your manager for forecasting and analysis opportunities in your current role or connect with your colleagues in FP&A for opportunities in your company.

Amp up on Soft Skills

The increasing use of RPA (Robotic Process Automation) in Finance has brought soft skills back into the spotlight. While machines can automate certain tasks as well as manage data crunching, they cannot emote a story or empathize with customers. And hence, soft skills such as storytelling, effective communication, impactful presentation and business partnering are key in becoming a well-rounded finance professional. Strong soft skills are the foundation for building a reliable toolkit of negotiation tactics, decision-making abilities and emotion management.

Imagine being amazing at crunching numbers and creating a stellar deck but lacking the communication skills to deliver an impactful story to the Chief Financial Officer. What business leaders look for and remember from the meeting, is how convincingly you delivered your story? Were you confident in your delivery, did you engage with the audience and were you able to add a bit of humor?

A strong suite of soft skills makes you memorable and in turn brings in more opportunities to deliver presentations to executive leaders. If people enjoy listening to your data stories and you make their decision-making process engaging, you will surely receive more opportunities to present to the leaders. Plus, leaders will remember you and that is a sure shot way to promote yourself!

Thrive as a finance business partner

Also, with finance becoming a collaborative frontier, business partnering has become the most important skill for finance professionals. In order to become a trusted business partner, a finance professional needs to have effective communication skills. Communicating ideas and decisions in a succinct and clear manner will help in guiding stakeholders towards the correct decision.

To Edwin Ang, soft skills are key to any successful finance and accounting career: “You need to be able to speak to people in Sales, Marketing and Operations in order to understand the story behind the numbers.” he states. “You need to build your communication skills and build rapport with people outside of finance and think how you can help them. Once you build rapport and your credibility, it makes your ability to influence much easier.” So, start reading up on ways to improve your communication skills and ways to engage

Recommended reading: Finance Business Partnering: The Collaborative Frontier

Design Thinking & Innovation

When most people think of design thinking they imagine product designers, large white boards, colorful sticky notes and creative people musing over a customer issue. However, design thinking is more than a set of tools and methods to imagine new products; it is also a mindset and a holistic approach to discover solutions. Design thinking evokes people centricity and a focus on value creation.

According to IDEO, “In employing design thinking, you’re pulling together what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.”

Design thinking focuses on identifying the right questions and finding new ways to tackle the problem with constant testing of different scenarios. Sounds like something that you would want in a finance person, right?

With dynamic business challenges and the changing mandate of finance, it is important that finance folks understand the principles of design thinking and embrace innovation. Most business problems that finance teams encounter are new and hence it is important to start with a blank slate, empathize with stakeholders and try as many options to figure out the best solution. In short: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

Create value playfully

Tim Wieringa of Singapore-based boutique consulting firm Hive17 describes Design Thinking as a people-centric way to drive passion and create value playfully. He explains its benefits as follows: “Innovation can be divided into two major steps: identifying creative solutions, and delivering these solutions to the user. And Design Thinking supports both. First, by opening up and understanding the challenges from many viewpoints, we are able to synergize and discover totally new solutions. After that, the approach gives you tools to simply experiment and iterate to adopt the solution to the opportunity and create an exciting journey.”

With the unique nature of business challenges, historical data might give you the wrong impression to define solutions. You need to expand your toolbox. When you come across an entirely new problem, you might benefit from a clean slate, an innovative way to think, and the ability to pivot your solutions. This is what will help you solve the problem.

As a finance professional, the ability to see a problem from different angles, propose multiple unique solutions and work out the most economically viable and customer centric will take you miles ahead!

Recommended reading: The Changing Mandate of Finance

Join Accounting Career Communities

When I started working in my first finance role, a mentor gave me advice to start investing in stocks. And how did that help me? I joined multiple stock analysis forums where members chomped on company financials for a living. I began understanding the equity finance lingo and more importantly, learned different ways to interpret financial ratios. This helped me improve my financial acumen as well as the reporting of my business units as I could elaborate more on the ratios & KPIs.

There are multiple such forums available online which you can join to interact with passionate professionals. CIMA, CFA, ACCA, etc. all have their own forums as well as LinkedIn is host to hundreds of groups which you can find easily.

The benefit of joining such groups is that they consist of professionals from different industries and geographies and the discussions are stimulating. The discussions happen across career trends, the latest analytics tools, business partnering etc. When you join such groups, you naturally network with executives, learn financial lingo and get exposed to different working techniques across different companies.

Another great way to find the local chapter of ACCA, CA, CFA or any other finance course that you have done. Attending seminars and getting involved in chapter activities will expose you to the latest knowledge and connect you to relevant industry executives.

Move out of Finance (for just a bit!)

By now you would have realized that a successful finance professional has a broad range of experience and skills. A great way to incorporate broad range in your work experience is to actually work outside finance for a bit. A stint in Strategy can teach you more about market trends and competitor strategy, another one in Sales Operations can show you the challenges a Sales team faces in clinching deals. Shortly working in Procurement will expand on your knowledge of supply chain.

A key factor in promoting someone from an individual contributor to a Finance Manager, is the cross-functional knowledge that they have. Doing short stints in different departments will give you first-hand exposure on how the business works and what challenges it faces. When you come back to finance after a short stint outside, you will be able to incorporate your learnings from different teams and come up with better solutions.

Also, when you work across different departments, you build a network which you can rely on when you come back to Finance. Such a network will help you get things done as well as provide information that you need to make the correct decisions.

The best way to grow towards a Finance Manager or a Head of Finance position, might be to actually step out of finance, gain some cross-functional exposure and leverage it for your growth! So, don’t be afraid that stepping out of your lane will push you back, it will actually propel you forward!

Robert J. Shiller - Finance is not merely about making money. It's about achieving our deep goals and protecting the fruits of our labour. It's about stewardship and, therefore, about achieving the good society.

Actionable Finance Career Advice

Finance is an exciting field which touches all other areas of an organization. To be a successful financial professional, one needs to incorporate a broad range of capabilities, be agile and most importantly, be great at stakeholder management.

So, what can you do today to lay the foundation of your growth? It’s as simple as 1-2-3:

  1. Research and enroll in one course which will help you improve your financial acumen or data skills.
  2. Sign up for two opportunities in your organization to present on a topic. This will make your craft two presentations incorporating story-telling and would be a great opportunity to work on your presentation skills.
  3. Message three people on LinkedIn whose career you would like to emulate and try to set up a short 20 minutes call with them to learn more about their experience and gradually work on building a mentor-mentee relationship with one of them.

While these actions seem simple, the impact is tremendous for yourself as well as the cascading team members. When you actively take control of your career, people around you will be inspired to better themselves. This creates an energetic atmosphere in the workplace and also spawns creativity, collaboration and a healthy dose of curiosity. All things which make Finance fun and a force of social good!

About Volve

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Yash Deshpande
My professional finance journey started in India with cars (Volkswagen) continuing in Singapore with short stints in leasing (Daimler), liquid soaps (P&G) and now laptops (Dell). Who says Finance can't be fun? On weekdays, I crunch numbers, grapple with BI tools and try to weave engaging stories for business leaders. On weekends, I write blogs for upcoming start-ups, engage with interesting folks over coffee, wind up with a movie and shuffle across 3 books.

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